Kim Jones discovers why it’s easy for families to fall in love with Croatia’s Istria, an almost heart-shaped peninsula lying in the Adriatic sea that’s blessed with pretty coastline, clean, clear seas and an unspoilt interior
Hugging the coast of the south of the peninsula is Pula, its primary city. A bustling port with a working shipyard it’s best known for its remarkable remnants of Roman architecture, which crop up in the most unexpected places as you stroll the streets – look out for impressive floor mosaics from the 3rd century AD, the Temple of Augustus, roman walls and – most famously – its awe-inspiring amphitheatre, the sixth largest and one of the best-preserved in the world.
As you’d expect from a seaside city – there’s a bountiful mix of bars, cafes and fish restaurants to while away the hours at, plus an impressive indoor and outdoor market filled with stalls laden with fish, meat and locally-grown fresh fruit and vegetables plus foods the region is famous for – including truffles, honey and olive oil. While away some time like the locals sitting with a spritzer or coffee in one of the cafes and restaurants that line the upstairs terraces of the market place and watch the world go by.
Spend your evenings viewing fishermen unload their catch at the port, catch a sensational sunset, hop on a boat trip to dolphin-spot or enjoy the ‘Lighting Giants’, where cranes at the Uljanik Shipyard are illuminated in a 15-minute show through summer.
Step away from the heat of the city, head south and you’ll discover a coastline notched with pebbly beaches, shady, pine-wooded coves and inlets plus plenty of hotels and the chance to have a go at all sorts of watersports.
All lapped by glassy-clear seas, the vast majority of beaches in Istria are pebbled or rocky, so bathing shoes for little ones are a good idea – and once they get the hang of it, they’ll love building ‘stone castles’ instead of the usual sandy types.
Head south of Pula and you’ll find plenty of places to dip in your toes and more. In the Punta Verudela ‘peninsula’ there’s safe bathing on the beaches that front the many hotels in this holiday haven – including the small white pebbled Hawaiian Beach Verudela. Also south of Pula, the village of Pješčana Uvala, is home to lots of holiday homes and rentals and its beach lies just off the main street, with a kids’ play area, basketball and volleyball and a beach bar for refreshments.
About 8km south-east of the city is Medulin, a holiday resort that’s home to that rarity in Croatia – a sandy strip. Around a kilometre in length, Bijeca beach is great for families with small children as its water remains shallow a long wade in, there are pedaloes for hire and pleasant beach bars where you can take shelter from the sun.
Housed in an atmospheric 130-year-old fort on the Verudela peninsula, Pula Aquarium is home to sharks, octopus, seahorses and lots more. What’s especially interesting is the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rescue Centre, where it cares for injured or sick sea turtles (which have been caught in fishing nets, eaten plastic, or been injured by boats’ propellers, for example) before returning them to their natural habitat. Expect to learn plenty about conservation and water preservation too.
From the small town of Fazana, just north of Pula, you can take a 15 minute boat trip to the Brijuni Islands. Designated National Park status thanks to their rare flora, unspoilt meadows and forests, and once home to a private residence of Yugoslavia’s President Tito, a train tour of the largest island – Veli Brijun – includes a visit to the Safari Park (home to llamas, camels, zebras and one (lonely) Indian Elephant. You’ll also get to see Roman villa ruins, a museum, a 1600 year old olive tree and some even older dinosaur footprints – look out for a particularly impressive large three-toes print on a limestone block right next to the jetty where your boat arrives. There are cafes to take a break in, hotels to sneak a peek at and you might want to take a dip in the clear seas too.
You won’t fail to be wowed by this impressive edifice dominating the city and just how well-preserved it is. Dating from the 1st century AD, it would have seated 20,000 spectators goading on gladiators to fight to the death. Depending when you visit, you can also take a seat to be treated to some – less bloodthirsty – entertainment these days, including (staged) gladiator battles, classical or contemporary music concerts or the chance to watch movies under the stars at the Pula International Film festival in July. Top tip: you can see plenty of what’s going on inside the amphitheatre if you walk up the inclines to the side and rear of the arena.
Istria is famous for its great cycling. Many professionals come to train here but there are lots of easy routes and trails to suit families who fancy taking to two wheels just for fun. Plenty of companies hire out bikes or offer tours. Jistra Adventures (jistra.com) are about 11km south east of Pula and offer bike hire and delivery to your hotel, or you can head down to the Kamenjak Cape with them for a 16km bike tour along the coastline, stopping off at pretty bays to do some swimming and cliff jumping, spot dolphins, search for dinosaur footprints and enjoy some fresh seafood for lunch. (Minimum age 7)
In the heart of the city, the cosy restaurant with two large terraces is loved by locals and serves generous pizzas, pastas, salad and seafood.
Not many places like this exist anymore – a wooden shack on the waterside serving a menu of no frills, delicious fish (whatever’s caught that day) bread and salad. Everything is fresh and lips-smackingly lovely (as long as you and the little ones love seafood that is, of course), but it’s the location that gives this place that extra-special something. You’re looking directly out onto a pretty bay where you’ll get to see the most spectacular sunset if you time it right. Do try the squid. About 8km south of Pula.
Just a few kilometres south of Pula, the Punta Verudela peninsula is home to top notch hotels and holiday complexes including the luxury Park Plaza Histria Hotel and neighbouring Verudela resort, featuring self-catering apartments.
Both sit in a prime seaside location overlooking the beautiful Verudela bay and are linked together by ‘Verudela Avenue’ a promenade of cafes, bars and restaurants plus shops, an art gallery and supermarket.
Just 50 metres away are Blue Flag beaches so popping into the sea is easy. Though you may be more than happy to stay in the hotel and resort grounds to enjoy their stunning pools with sea views – plus pool bars on hand to satisfy your thirst after all that swimming (or lounging around).
The Histria also has an indoor pool and a Spa where you can enjoy a steam room, Finnish sauna and aroma-experience showers followed by a snooze in the relaxation room as part of your package or book yourself a treat of a hot stone treatment, massage or aromatherapy facial as extra.
If you’re feeling energetic then head to the sports and recreation areas where there are tennis courts, football pitches, basketball, volleyball, mini golf and more. Or join in with the hotel’s A2 team and gave a go at Aqua Gym, Body Balance, Pilates or Tabata.
The Artur Kid’s Club at the Verudela resort keeps the kids happy from morning, noon ‘til night. A daily programme includes the chance to have swimming lessons, take part in treasure hunts, learn to breakdance or hip hop or even try getting your tongue around speaking Croatian. In the evening, they can dance the night away at Artur’s mini disco, make lego models by moonlight, enjoy fairy story time or yell ‘ahoy’ at a pirate party.
There are also teen clubs and nightly entertainment shows for adults on the terrace at the Histria.
Where to stay
Park Plaza Histria: All rooms have private balconies, many with sea views – price from €127 per room per day in low season and €200 per room per day in July/August (bed & breakfast)
Park Plaza Verudela: An apartment for four people costs from €72 per day in low season and from €254 in July/August
How to get there
Airlines including Ryanair, EasyJet, Jet2.com, Tui and British Airways fly from regional airports to Pula. The airport is around 8km from the city centre, a 15 minute drive
Most car hire companies have offices in the airport. We booked our car rental via Esky.com, which searches out the best holiday price deals.